Dairy cows came to McHenry County in the mid-1830’s in tow with the settlers who eventually developed our towns and villages. Early dairy production was for personal use and not commercial enterprise. The 1995 county history titled McHenry County in the Twentieth Century mentions the Eckert family who settled on Queen Ann Prairie in 1838, and went without milk for a full year. Their long milk drought ended in 1839 when the Herdklotz family and their cow settled nearby and the Eckert’s could again enjoy a glass of milk.

Up until the Civil War most of McHenry County’s livestock was raised for beef. Butter was produced and shipped to other markets but only in small quantities. According to the 1885 History of McHenry County in 1867 the county experienced a boom in dairy production when eight cheese factories opened operations that year; the local cheese factories were located in Union, Riley Township, and Marengo. The Union factory was operated by Hungerford and Durkee; the Riley factory by P.B. Leonard, E. Graves, and Leonard Parker; and the Marengo factory was operated by Anson Sperry and R.M. Patrick.

As the country crept into the new century Northern Illinois’ population blew up. From 1880 to 1900 Chicago’s population grew from approximately 503,000 people to 1.69 million, and the Chicagoans were thirsty for milk. Milk poured daily into Chicago from the rural areas that surrounded the city.

In the early 1900’s the county’s dairy industry saw more expansion when the Borden Dairy built several milk processing plants in the county. The Borden Dairy was founded by inventor Gail Borden Jr. Prior to entering the dairy business; Borden first sold meat biscuits. In 1851 on a trip aboard a ship returning from London where Borden exhibited his biscuits he saw firsthand the horrific effects of spoiled milk; passengers drank the milk and many got sick and several children died. This experience gave Borden an idea, and after several years of experimenting Borden received a patent for condensed milk. During the Civil War the Borden Dairy made a fortune selling the product to the Union Army. In fact, business was so lucrative that Borden opened new factories in Connecticut, New York, and Chicago – sales thrived into the new century.

It was under this historic backdrop that Marengo received a Borden Plant. The Marengo facility started purchasing milk in March of 1903 - before construction on the plant was even completed. For several months the Marengo milk was shipped to Cherry Valley and Belvidere for processing. By mid-August the Marengo plant was completed and processing local milk.

In its early days the plant was capable of daily processing 25,000 pounds of milk - all produced by sixty-five local farms, but over the years those numbers grew. The February 16, 1950, edition of the Marengo Republican News published a feature article on the Borden Dairy, and reported that the plant accepted milk from 160 farms located in a seven miles radius from Marengo. Each day area farmers milked approximately 4,000 cows to keep the plant running. The Borden Dairy was staffed by 29 employees, and was capable of accepting up to 200,000 pounds of milk each day. Eight skilled cheesemakers crafted the milk into 25,000 pounds of cottage and baker’s cheese.

Marengo cheese production at the Borden Dairy plant had a very positive impact on the local economy. In 1948 Borden’s bought 32,066,920 pounds of milk from Marengo farmers for $1,294,721. The following year Borden’s paid McHenry County farmers $4,320,072 for 119,639,641 pounds of milk. But, like many other enterprises that don’t last forever Borden’s followed the same path. In the 1950’s the Borden Dairy shut its doors for good.

Having the dairy plant was a plus for Marengo and local farmers, but not all things associated with the Borden Dairy were positive. During its years of operation from the early 1900’s to the 1950’s not a decade went by that wasn’t marred by a milk producer’s strike, but that’s a story for another day.

News

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